Café San Marcos delivers back-home flavor to immigrants.
Café San Marcos delivers back-home flavor to immigrants.
Anna Newell

A Taste of Freedom

In the sun-splashed dining room of La Praviana, a neat-as-a-pin Salvadoran restaurant on South Broadway, the shy waitress sets down two cold bottles of Suprema beer, and Roque Guillermo Luna begins to talk very quietly, very gently -- in fact, he begins to talk the way a grownup talks when trying to comfort a distraught child -- about the things most norteamericanos still don't know about the mechanisms and practice of terror.

In 1980, Luna explains, he was a student at the National University of El Salvador, which then had an enrollment of about 30,000, and he remembers well the week when President Jose Duarte sent troops onto the campus to shut it down because the president believed the subversivos had gotten out of hand again. The soldiers smashed windows, set fire to office files and angrily wrecked furniture. They roughed up and pistol-whipped anyone in their path. Before the siege was over, eighty students and faculty members lay dead, including Luna's best friend.

"Imagine National Guard troops attacking a biology class at CU," the import-export executive says. "It's unthinkable. But then, Americans have had to adjust in many ways since September 11. We all have more fear inside us now, because we see how vulnerable we are to outside forces. In Salvador in the '80s, fear was a way of life. It was the time of the death squads."


La Praviana Caf San Marcos

La Praviana
2231 South Broadway, 303-722-0129
ours: 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Thursday-Sunday
6 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday

Caf San Marcos
9935 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-341-2939
Hours: 10 a.m.-9p.m. Monday-Thursday
10 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Friday-Sunday

We turn to our food as though it were a gloomy afterthought and, as if on a cue to lighten the afternoon, start discussing international soccer's upcoming World Cup -- something else Americans don't grasp very well. "These are nice," Luna says, looking at the platter before us. "The real thing." We are eating pupusas, the little round fried pies stuffed with various combinations of meat, beans and white cotija cheese, that are prominently featured on every menu in Denver's growing roster of Salvadoran places. Fork a bit of curtido (marinated cabbage, carrot and pepper) and dab some mild tomato sauce on top of the pupusa, and the effect is satisfyingly harmonious. Soon to arrive at table: a sublime order of tostadas de camarones con langosta (shrimp and crab tostadas) and some pan con pollo -- crusty French bread stuffed with roast chicken, watercress, cucumber, tomatoes and radishes.

Pressed to take up again the lessons we might learn from his country's troubled past, Luna shakes his head, as if to despair at the impenetrability of the gringo mind. "There was a time, when the right-wing death squads were at work, when you couldn't dare to leave your house at night," he explains. "You avoided the streets whenever possible -- bought food and household items quickly, then rushed back inside. Taxicabs were dangerous. Buses stopped at checkpoints took hours to clear, and sometimes passengers were pulled off and taken away. Never seen again, unless they were found in the body dumps. Not even the churches were safe."

Indeed. In El Salvador in the '70s, the politically outspoken Archbishop Romero was murdered while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel. At his funeral, thirty more people were killed. No one was surprised. Since becoming an independent republic in 1841, this small Central American nation tucked between Guatemala and Honduras on the Pacific Coast has been battered by ideological disputes, fierce rivalries and violent military coups. In 1969, a war with Honduras. In the '70s and '80s, an internal reign of terror, abetted by the CIA.

Since 1992, however, a welcome calm has prevailed -- as long as you don't consider last year's plague of killer earthquakes. "El Salvador is in its ninth year of transition to a peacetime society after twelve years of civil conflict," a bland U.S. government commerce report states. The country now has "the most open economy in the region," thanks to a decade of policy reforms "crowned in 2001 with the introduction of the U.S. dollar as full legal tender."

Roque Luna greets these stated facts with an indulgent nod. "The climate has changed," he says. "Life is better. But many salvadoreños still want to leave."

Antonio Garcia-Zuleta, proprietor of downtown Aurora's four-year-old Café San Marcos, left El Salvador in 1975 for Los Angeles, where he operated video stores, a bar and a restaurant. He came to Denver seven years ago and still has an occasional pang of longing for Southern California's beach life, so reminiscent of La Libertad and the Gulf of Fonseca in their peaceful days.

Today the ill-lighted, funky San Marcos, minimally furnished with secondhand vinyl booths and dominated by a mural depicting San Salvador's trademark Christ-on-a-pedestal monument, Salvador del Mundo, serves up a wide variety of Mexican dishes, fresh fish and intriguing Salvadoran specialties like salpicón y casamiento (chopped beef and vegetables with black rice), carne guisada (a thick, hearty beef stew) and a Salvadoran version of chiles rellenos stuffed with fragrantly spiced ground beef.

Just as important, Garcia-Zuleta, who signs his business cards Tony Garcia, finds himself host (and sometimes entertainment director) to many of the metro area's Central Americans: Hondurans, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans. The flags of six nations, including the Stars and Stripes, hang in the bar, which features some brands of cerveza that we've never seen before: Salvavidas from Honduras, Famosa from Guatemala, Regia from Salvador.

The jukebox is crammed with international pop hits -- try finding "Lágrimas Negras" at your corner saloon -- and on select weekend nights, the San Marcos's plain-Jane dance hall reverberates with nostalgic hits played by top-drawer bands imported from back home. "It can get expensive," Garcia-Zuleta explains. "Five thousand. Ten thousand. But our customers love it."

They also love it when the proprietor, taking a break from his usual duties, performs a little tableside sleight of hand, making a nickel disappear, then retrieving it from a patron's lapel, or pulling a quarter from a pretty woman's ear. To see Tony Garcia at work and play in the joyful confines of Café San Marcos, you can scarcely imagine that El Salvador endured more than a century of noche obscura -- political darkness -- that now serves to remind us of all the world's perils.

Still, even as you sample a beautifully browned pupusa stuffed with queso and loroca (the delicately sautéed blossom of an unnamed Salvadoran vegetable) and listen to "Toda Una Vida" on the jukebox, you can't help noticing a framed display mounted on a dark wall opposite the bar. Gobernantes Salvadoreños, the legend reads, and the long succession of official presidential portraits, steeped in military plumage and threatening glower, suggest a history of terror that Salvadorans wouldn't care to revisit and the anguished citizens of the rest of the planet shouldn't care to prolong -- not in Pakistan or Iraq, West Africa or lower Manhattan. But as Roque Guillermo Luna, staring down at his plate of tostadas, observes: "Governments change. Economies change. Even ideas change. But does man's nature change? I don't care to speculate on that."

Instead, we have a good lunch and talk about soccer.


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